Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Cinema File #197: "Stoker" Review

You know, it only just recently occurred to me how strange it is that up until now, I've so emphatically considered myself a fan of South Korean director Park Chan-wook. I'm not saying one doesn't have a reason to be a fan based on his talents as a director, but up until now, I'd only ever seen one movie he's ever done, and while granted that movie was Old Boy which is like ten kinds of awesome, it seems silly to say I'm a fan of a director after only seeing one thing he's directed. Well, I've now seen two, which I guess would be the bare minimum for making any claims of fandom, and while his first English-language effort Stoker has its problems, I can't pin any of them on Chan-wook, and his visual style went a long way towards saving what could have easily been a disaster of a movie.

Stoker is the story of a stoic, troubled teenage girl dealing with the trauma of losing her father, whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of her mysterious long lost Uncle Charlie. If you've never seen an Alfred Hitchcock movie, don't bother seeing this (or you know, staying alive really). Stoker isn't just an homage to Hitchcock's complete body of work, its the closest a movie has ever come to having sex with it. Change the main male character's name to Norman and you have yourself the best, or if you prefer only good continuation of Psycho ever made. The references and visual cues are so obvious and heavy handed without ever being explicit that by the end it even gets a little annoying, though not enough to outright ruin the movie.

What does become so annoying as to almost ruin the movie is the willfully obtuse impenetrability of the characters, who collectively share in each other's weird otherness in a way that is both paradoxically the film's main selling point and its main flaw. For all the faithfully rendered Hitchcockian style, the cast is right out of a Wes Anderson movie, taciturn and sullen but in a way I think is meant to be cool, each with a random assortment of eccentricities substituting for actual character depth. Our protagonist is a borderline autistic that puts one in mind of Wednesday Addams if she existed in a less whimsical and more realistic universe, and while I appreciated that approach at the outset, watching her mope around her massive collection of identical shoes or just stare blankly at whatever she should be emoting at made me long for a main character with a little more investment in the events of the film.

Nicole Kidman turns in a performance that continues to make me question why she is notoriously paid so well compared to other, much more engaging actresses. Technically she's much better here than in the last thing I saw her in, but then that was The Paperboy, from which anything would be an improvement, so its not really a useful comparison. The stand-out I suppose is Matthew Goode as the enigmatically charming Uncle Charlie, whose presence in the house immediately begs for the reveal of dark secrets that prove more than a little predictable in the grand scheme of things. As I alluded to earlier, he's our Anthony Perkins, but with an eerie self confidence and much more believable sexual magnetism that makes him the most fun to watch even as you pretty much have to know where his story is going to go from the first time he shows up on screen.

Where Stoker fails in presenting characters that I can completely enjoy or a story with enough twists to actually surprise me, it more than makes up for its deficiencies on the technical side of things. I was not aware of how indelible Park Chan-wook's visual panache was for me until I realized how recognizable it was despite my not having seen Old Boy in several years. Had I not known of his involvement prior to watching this film, I would have instantly guessed it even having so little direct experience with his work. The way he stages every scene and moves the camera so dynamically around the room makes you easily forget that what's happening in the script is at various points either cliched and/or uninteresting. The ability to make what should be a bad movie good by sheer force of talent is what separates good directors from bad ones, and Chan-wook makes it look effortless here.

Overall, I would recommend seeing Stoker only for the style on display, and caution that if you need an original and exciting story to go along with your extremely pretty and well-crafted visuals, you'll probably be disappointed. Fans of Hitchcock like myself will no doubt groove on the presentation, but also like me might find the constant hammering home of these motifs grating over the course of the running time. Its too well-made for me not to recommend it, and while it makes me much less enthusiastic about the continued screenwriting career of Prison Break's Wentworth Miller, it more than fills me with confidence about the continued state-side work of Chan-wook. Definitely give it a watch, just maybe with the sound off.

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